Evie, the girl at the Owl Sorts reception desk, jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “He’s out back with the babbies.” She didn’t look up from the paperwork she was sorting into filing cabinets with quick flicks of her wand.
Hermione thanked her and passed through the small storefront and out the back door, where the huge aviaries, four on each side, lined a broad dirt path that led to the training fields. She winced as she always did at the rough crackle of muggle rock and roll coming from the spelled speakers; Harry claimed the owls liked it. At least “they” didn’t like it loud.
One tall dark-haired wizard was waving his wand over a slim young barn owl perched fluttering on his arm; a witch with a red braid down her back carried a hooded and jessed snowy owl past Hermione with a polite nod of greeting, heading for the training fields.
Preparing post owls was a complicated process of spells and training flights; no one had been more surprised than Harry that he’d stumbled into this profession, and everyone had been less pleased; Ron and Hermione in particular had hoped he’d join them at the Ministry, as an Auror, maybe, or something else. Neither of them said it to Harry, but they worried about him, and his gradually increasing distance from them didn’t help.
He was sitting on his heels in front of the hatchling cage, watching three white fluffballs in a nest fall over a lot and taking an occasional swig from a bottle the color of his eyes. Alerted by the hooting of the observant mother barn owl, he looked up as she neared, stiffened almost imperceptibly - guilt, she knew, and she watched it pass - then gave her a wave with two fingers of the hand still holding the firewhiskey.
Hermione stopped. “Oh, Harry.”
He set the bottle down and gave her a fairly focused glare.
“Why do you do that?”
“I have regrets,” he snapped. “I’m self-medicating.”
“I think you stopped going to the counselor too soon,” she said.
“My regrets were none of his business,” Harry said, and smiled, because he knew what she’d say.
“They were exactly his business. He could have helped you let go.”
“I already let go. I let go four years ago.”
“Not of Ginny,” Hermione said softly, but she’d already hit his threshold. He slid up the wall until upright and faced her, sliding dirty hands into his front pockets.
“Was there a reason you came by other than to practice your AA recruitment speech? Ministry need some new post owls?”
She held out the letter. He took it, turned it right side up, shoved his glasses up on his nose, scowled at it, and said, “What’re you doing with it?”
“It was dropped off at the Ministry,” she said. “By a messenger.”
Harry read the address, written in grey ink and spiky, grudging letters:
All-Britain Post Owl Aviary and Training Center
Hootdown, Cornwall PL25 4TH
No return address. Harry ripped open the envelope and pulled out a single sheet of parchment. Hermione watched his eyes go back and forth quickly, then rise to meet hers.
“Is it a commission?”
“Service call.” He turned the envelope over to look at the back, did the same with the note. “No name, though. Whoever it is has some sick delivery owls and wants someone to come out. The address is in Scotland.”
“No name?” Hermione echoed, feeling her brow draw down.
Harry rolled his eyes. “Don’t go all Auror on me. If I decide to go, I’ll be careful.”
“You don’t know the meaning of the word,” she said, smiling though she wasn’t kidding. “Don’t scoff. There are still people alive in the world who hate you.”
“And people who aren’t alive in the world and never got a chance to stop,” he said.
“He didn’t hate you,” Hermione said, as she’d said countless times before. She didn’t know it, she just said it, and Harry gave it all the consideration that deserved.
Some of the things that haunted Harry she understood - Dumbledore, Sirius, Remus, Fred, Dobby, even Voldemort in a strange way. Some - well, one - remained a complete mystery to her, and to most of Harry’s other friends.
He sloped over to the cage and poked idle fingers through the mesh close to the nest. The mother hooted indulgently as the hatchlings tottered over to investigate the teasing fingers.
Carefully she asked, “Will you stop by Hogwarts while you’re up there?”
His body language replied with an immediate no and she waited, curious to see how much of a lie his brain and mouth would provide. Maybe she should’ve sent Ron - he managed to be worried without sounding censorious; maybe Harry would listen to him, open up to him. Although the last time she’d sent Ron, he’d staggered home sodden and bloodied at four a.m. after an all-night pub crawl and subsequent street brawl Ron and Harry never adequately explained.
“Maybe,” Harry said.
Hermione sighed. She couldn’t really understand the demons that tore at Harry, and he never tried to shape or name them to her. Even if he needed her help, he didn’t want it.
The house was old and weatherbeaten, down a long gravel drive from the lane, but the grass was short and the windows sparkled; a long barn stood at right angles off to the right rear of the cottage, wooden shutters all closed. Harry saw no movement.
He raised the rusty knocker and let it drop squeaking onto the plate with a disappointing thunk. Motion from the direction of the barn caught his eye and he turned as someone came into view.
Snape. His brain snapped the word, then froze.
Snape froze as well - for an instant. Then whipped out his wand and cast a low-voiced expelliarmus at Harry.
Don’t! The word barely formed in Harry’s head, without a chance in hell of reaching his lips, as the spell struck him, sparked and bounced back; the reflected magic hit Snape so hard it knocked him backward a step; his arm flew up and his wand flew away, arcing across the dry grass to land near the front gate.
“Don’t!” Harry managed to choke out as Snape raised his hands, a wandless hex almost visible on his lips. “I’m protected!” He kept his hands in view, away from his wand, an automatic reaction that fortunately required no thought - his brain just kept flashing Snape Snape Snape like the light on top of a police car.
“Potter.” His face pinched and chalky, Snape approached, one wary doom-laden step at a time. “What are you doing here?”
Snape Snape Snape!
“What am I doing here?” Harry gaped. He backed into something - support post - and realised he’d been backing away as if from a Dementor. “Bloody buggerin’ hell! What am I doing here!” His chest felt paralyzed, air stopping with an audible click in his throat. Snape! Fucking Snape.
Snape stopped a few feet away, then reached sideways; his wand flew to his fingertips and Harry automatically raised his hands again.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Snape said, his voice weary, rough. “One of us at least can draw logical conclusions from the evidence we’re presented; you can’t have come to arrest me if you didn’t know I was here.”
“Arrest you?” Snape. Snape, alive. His brain kept saying it, perhaps in the hope it would eventually start to make sense, to fit in somewhere.
Snape tucked his wand into a pocket; he wore trousers and a long tunic and jacket, all in what had probably, many washings past, been black. “You sound like a parrot.” He rubbed a knuckly hand over his eyes and sighed. “Merlin, you’re like an indelible hex. I shall never be rid of you.”
“Rid—” Harry forcibly bit off another attempt at parrotdom and fumbled in the pocket of his jeans, yanking out the much-folded letter. “You sent for me!” See, I can too draw conclusions from the evidence I’m presented.
Snape looked at the letter and his eyes fell shut in a kind of resignation. Harry continued to stare at him - alive! - taking in the details, the differences, still without any conscious thought. Snape looked smaller without full wizarding robes, narrower, less intimidating. His heavy, dull black hair was drawn into a ponytail that reached past the middle of his back; that and the slightly shabby clothes gave him a derelict air.
Fucking Snape. Is standing right here.
“I take it you work for Owl Sorts.”
Harry nodded without really hearing what Snape had said; then blinked. “Yah - that is, I’m sort of—” He stopped, irked at his own hedging. “I’m the boss.”
Snape shook his head, tiredly, but his lips twitched and his eyes crinkled a bit and Harry was treated to a wholly novel experience: wry amusement on Snape’s face.
“I could have opened a shop somewhere in Diagon Alley; no need for owls. But no. I wanted to be away from the wizarding world. Away from the past.” He spread his hands, helpless. “And here you are.”
“How …” Harry inhaled, let more of his screaming astonishment into his voice. “How in the name of Merlin are you standing here alive?”
“Standing here dead would be more of an achievement, I should think,” Snape said drily, almost smiling.
“Professor …” The word was a clear plea, though Harry hadn’t meant it to sound so. Snape looked at him, hard, and exhaled audibly.
“Come in, then.” He went to the door and opened it, and Harry followed him into a bare, tidy room. One side was taken up by a battered, flowery couch and two chairs that didn’t match, grouped around a cold hearth; the other had a table and two chairs, bare wood, and a dresser with a few plates, here and there, like a smiling mouth bereft of all but a few randomly placed teeth.
“Tea?” Snape - didn’t ask, Harry realized, as the man headed into the kitchen at the back.
As if spelled, he followed all the way to the cooker and, as Snape reached for the kettle, took hold of his arm as easily as if they’d been friends.
“Professor,” he said again, half-whispered. “Please. How?”
Snape turned, looked at his hand, then at his face. His eyes narrowed, as though he saw something in Harry’s expression that puzzled him.
“Sit down. You seem to be—” He pushed Harry into a chair while Harry thought Gobsmacked? Thunderstruck? Overwhelmed? Glad and scared at the same time?
“—hyperventilating,” Snape finished.
Harry put an experimental hand on his chest. He was breathing sort of fast. He looked up at Snape, standing thin and … normal … in his muggle attire, his pale lined face calm, curious — so different from all Harry’s strongest memories of him that he felt he was looking at a stranger.
“I thought you had died,” he said, and the words came out a whisper.
“I know. It — I had not planned it, but I realised that it was best, for me, if everyone thought I had.” He looked around the bare, worn, inelegant kitchen and huffed a sarcastic laugh. “I wanted to be free.”
“I — we — all wondered what happened to you,” Harry stammered, feeling a formless but pressing need to apologise. “Your body - I mean, I always thought that one of the Death Eaters took it, for some reason.”
Another split-second smile touched Snape’s face. “In a way.”
Harry waited in vain. “You’re not going to tell me, are you?”
Snape’s mouth pursed. “I — someone found me and helped me. Let me stay hidden until I was well enough to decide what I wanted to do.”
“Long enough for you to know that everyone had been told about you,” Harry half-asked, irritated. “That you were a hero, not a Death Eater. That it was you as much as Dumbledore, or me, who saved the wizarding world from Voldemort.”
Snape’s dark eyes rested steadily on him.
“And you still didn’t want me - I mean, anyone - to know you were alive?”
The kettle began to whistle.
“Some people knew.” Snape turned back to the cooker to prepare the tea. The sight of his silly, ordinary, human ponytail made Harry smile.
Snape carried the pot and two mismatched cups to the table. “I …” He set the teapot down, looked at it for a moment. “I didn’t feel safe.”
Harry considered. Smiled. “Yeah. I understand that.” He idly plucked a couple of sugar cubes from the bowl on the table and dropped them in the nearest cup, a battered chocolate brown mug with “White Hart” on it in block letters.
Snape allowed himself another sour smile. “The spell you’re using — omnituero, I take it?”
Harry nodded. “There’ve been a couple of … incidents. It’s just easier.”
Snape echoed his nod. “Milk?”
“Uh, yeah, please.”
Snape gave each cup a dab from a small white pitcher, then sat down catercorner to Harry, his hands around his cup but not touching it. Like parentheses, Harry thought, as if the tea were an interruption—
Abruptly he realised he was sitting there as if a guest, when in fact he was — or should be — working. He took a big ceremonial gulp of the strong tea and slid his chair backward.
“Sorry. I — that is, you wrote me a letter. I mean — you’re having trouble with your post owls?” He fished the battered letter out of his pocket again and Snape took it for some reason, nimble fingers smoothing it as he stared blankly at it.
“Yes. I need an expert. There is some kind of magical malady afflicting my delivery owls. Owl Sorts having long been famed throughout Britain for its expertise—”
“You dropped off an anonymous letter at the Ministry.” Harry knew his fishing was unsubtle, but Snape hadn’t threatened to hex him so far (well, Harry mentally emended, not counting right at the start).
“The Ministry is a much busier place. It’s easier to get in and out anonymously. Owl Sorts is out in the middle of nowhere.”
“Yes, but … I mean, you’re not using a glamour or anything. You had to know that there was a chance whoever came up here might recognise you.”
“I’m not quite so determined as all that to disappear,” Snape said, and again Harry was struck by the equanimity of both manner and words. “I do not wish to partake of any of the celebrity or infamy attendant upon Voldemort’s demise — you are more than welcome to that—”
“I simply do not wish to draw undue attention to myself now that I finally have a chance to be let alone.” Snape took a sip of his tea and Harry followed suit, thinking. Whether Snape’s peaceable tone was all false or not, he’d detected in those last words a crack, letting through a peek of weary bitterness that he felt he could understand.
He only realised he was silently staring at the man when Snape rose to his feet and went to the door, gesturing with the hand still holding Harry’s letter. “Shall we?”
Harry jumped up. “Right. Of course.”
They left the house and headed around toward the barn.
Snape scowled at the letter as they walked. “Hard as it is to imagine you the foremost expert on anything—”
“Yeah, yeah.” Harry waved a hand. “Nearly everyone’s good at something, you know.”
“Well, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility, I suppose, that even you might have matured into—” Snape paused, peering suddenly closer at the letter. “What is this — jam?”
Harry snatched the letter back. “I eat whilst I work. So hex me.”
Snape didn’t rise to the bait, verbally or otherwise. They entered the long barn via one of a pair of tall wooden doors hung askew on hinges that seemed only a few more openings from giving up the ghost.
Harry looked around admiringly; though battered, the place had clearly been built to last, with thick stone walls and good woodwork. “How’d you get this place? I mean, being dead and all.”
“I had a few galleons left. Gringotts is discreet. The goblins don’t care whether someone is …”
“Dead?” Harry supplied brightly. Snape shot him a silencing look and led the way into the barn.
It was half potions lab and half owl aviary and storage. Snape went straight through the former and into the back, and Harry looked around. The walls were lined with old wooden shelves, painfully empty of all but a handful of bottles and jars. Two long tables, scattered with apparatus, stood in the middle of the bare floor, and in a corner a large hearth held a low fire under a big cast iron cauldron. Something silvery was bubbling gently in the pot. One wall held a knife rack; the counter under it had collections of plants. Looking idly, Harry was pleased to recognize some.
“Isn’t that wild—” He bit his tongue as another coating of ignorance was stripped away from his brain. Wild thyme. Wild moonwort. Scrawny berries and ragged dandelions.
Snape came out of the back room with a young barn owl on his arm and a message pouch in his hand.
“I first discovered this about a week ago when I needed to deliver an order.” He fastened the pouch to the owl’s leg. “It’s happened on every attempted delivery since — three of them. This is a new owl.” He glanced at Harry.
“You might want to step back.” Snape gently tossed the bird into the air — a practiced move — and the owl spread its wings—
The air filled with smoke, a scent reminiscent of manure, and pointy brown and white feathers. Harry waved the miasma away to see the naked owl, hooting and clicking, flutter heavily to the floor, wings outstretched, tottering and hysterical. Automatically he went to it and collected it, cooing comfortingly as he drew in the horrid bare wings and held the bird close against his sternum.
“Wow,” he said mildly. “That’s interesting.” He fingered the small pouch, singed but essentially still whole, and the distressed owl pecked at his hand.
Snape watched him, arms crossed, bemused. “The feathers grow back, but the owls are still useless; they’re permanently traumatised. I can’t get within twenty paces of them with a potions pouch. I’ve already looked into the obvious possibilities — poison, hexes, curses—”
Obvious, Harry thought, smiling, certainly meant different things to different people.
He tucked the denuded owl inside his jacket — he’d discovered that most owls found him comforting — and moved around the room, poking at tables and things and cataloguing what he might need to do the diagnostic spells. In the aviary in the back three featherless owls, horrid-looking and jittery but essentially uninjured, stood close to one another on a long perch about 10 feet up; there was plenty of food and light and fresh air, with straw for the mess. Snape took good care of his owls.
He stopped under the other owls and they clicked at him irritably, like workers bitching about their boss. The owl inside his jacket squirmed as if trying to escape, and he stroked it carefully.
Snape came to the doorway. His scowl made Harry say:
“I — if you want I can send someone else.”
“Who is your best man? Or woman?”
“For this sort of thing? Me.”
“Then I want you.”
Harry felt his face heat up. He didn’t know how else to react to anything within a mile of a kind word out of that mouth. Probably he gibbered a bit.
Snape rolled his eyes. “If it were something simple — or even of average complexity — I would have figured it out. I simply don’t know enough about owl physiology. This requires an expert.”
Harry nodded. “May I take one?”
Snape shrugged. “Take them all. They’re no use to me — probably they’ll prove no use to anyone.”
“If not I’ll find homes for them,” Harry said, pulling a long, clean straw from the floor of the aviary and transfiguring it into a basket big enough to transport all four owls.
Snape watched him pack up the owls, his arms getting tighter and tighter around his body as Harry worked; observing him sidelong, Harry guessed the reason for Snape’s increasing unease a moment before the potions master said:
“What do you charge for this sort of thing?”
“Depends. I won’t know ‘til I know what sort of thing this is.” He paused, gnawing his lip for a moment. “I’ll need samples of their food and water and bedding and the cage you keep them in,” he began, running down the theoretical list in his head. “Anything else you can think of that they come into contact with.”
“—even if you’ve already checked it yourself.” At Snape’s cynical glare Harry said, “You said you were looking for hexes and curses and stuff.”
“And what stuff will you look for?”
Harry had to smile at the fine control in Snape’s voice — he put only enough sneer on “stuff” to be suspected, not convicted.
“Everything else, I s’pose.”
A quarter hour later Harry had four nude owls in a basket in one hand and a sack of miscellany from Snape’s lab in the other.
He turned to Snape, standing in the doorway. “Okay. I’ll be in touch, then.”
Snape hesitated visibly. “Mr Potter.”
“You can call me Harry.”
Snape visibly winced. “May I trust you to keep my … identity to yourself?”
Harry pondered a moment. “What do your customers call you?” He watched the slight shift of Snape’s eyes as he pondered surrendering even this minor secret to him.
“They know me as Regulus Brewer.”
Harry grinned. “Okay, Reg.” That earned another wince, but Snape said nothing more before Harry apparated back to Owl Sorts.
He was preparing Snape’s owls’ feathers for a diagnostic potion when the bell rang out front. He ignored it, as he always did when working.
“It occurred to me,” the deep, soft voice from behind him made him jump, “that given the circumstances there was nothing I could do to avoid startling you.”
Harry turned, hand melodramatic over his heart, and said, “Don’t do that.”
“There was no one out front,” Snape said, entering and shutting the door. “Of course, as I would not have entered otherwise. I heard you muttering in here. I would have knocked, but—”
“Yeah, that would’ve startled me too.” Astonished to see Snape here, Harry fiddled blank-minded with the feathers in his hands while Snape glanced interestedly around his cluttered workroom. He wore the same sort of battered muggle-type jacket and pants as he had the day before — possibly the very same.
“I was stopping by to see if there was anything further you might need from me. And, I confess, to see if you’d learned anything.”
Snape came to the table to look over his paraphernalia, his shoulder brushing Harry’s so naturally that Harry found himself shaking his head. Who was this man who stood so easily beside him and touched him as if it were nothing? All his feuds and fights and rages and regrets kept swelling inside him, only to sputter into confusion when they found no fuel in Snape’s behavior.
“You …” He cleared his throat. “You could’ve Flooed. Or aren’t you on the Floo?”
“No. I—” Harry heard — or imagined — can’t afford it before Snape finished, “have no need for it.”
Carefully casual, Harry shrugged. “Not a problem. Unfortunately I’m still in the evaluating stage — comparing the owl’s blood and bones and feathers with those of healthy owls to see if anything’s different, you know. Nothing yet.” He quickly brushed the sticky feathers into the small cauldron simmering away on his worktable.
“Would you like a tour? It won’t take long, and these have to stew a bit anyway.” He gestured vaguely at his diagnostic potion. “There’s no one here today but me, so you don’t have to … you know, worry.”
Snape gave him a level, calculating look and nodded.
Harry led him out of the shopfront — there was nothing interesting there — and into the warm summer afternoon air out back by the aviaries.
Harry noticed that, like Hermione, Snape winced a little at the music crackling out of the spelled speakers.
“They like The Who,” Harry explained.
Snape’s face twisted. “Are you trying to be funny?”
Puzzled, Harry said, “No. It seems to make them content.” He led the way along the path between the huge cages, explaining this breed and that, this stage of training and that, until they reached the end of the aviaries and the start of the path to the training fields. He looked at Snape to evaluate his level of impatient boredom and found the man looking at him with his head tilted.
“How did this happen?”
Harry found himself smiling at what sounded like genuine curiosity. “I was in Eeylops a few years ago. I wanted to get a new owl. This old guy was in there talking to Madame Minox. I was waiting, and I got kind of interested in their discussion, so I asked a few questions. Next thing I knew, this bloke — Rufus Strix — was inviting me to visit the center. Turns out he was the owner.” Harry shrugged. “I got hooked. Turns out not everyone can do the spell to make the owls suitable as post owls; he took me to the Ministry — that’s where they keep the book — and …” Another shrug. “I could do the spell. He sort of made me his heir.”
“What book are you referring to?”
“Ah,” Snape said. “I’ve heard of it, but of course it’s kept under strict security at the Ministry.”
Harry spread his arms. “It’s huge. Huge. The biggest book you’ve ever—okay,” he emended mid-rant at the sudden twist of Snape’s lips, “the biggest book I’ve ever seen. Every witch or wizard alive is in it — it’s amazing to open it and watch it write and erase and write and erase, every time a witch or wizard is born, or dies, or moves.” He waved his hands, smiled. “Hard to watch for long without getting a bit motion sick, though. Anyway, there’s this long complicated spell that you cast and it sort of … distills the Kn’owledge into a potion. I catch it in a bottle and give it to the owls. One drop is all it takes; they become linked to the Kn’owledge. They just know where everyone is, all the time — even babies.” Even when they’re under the stairs in their aunt’s and uncle’s house. He didn’t often think about the Dursleys any more, but from time to time a random thought like a thorn would surface to prick at him and fall away.
“Well, they still have to be taught, you know, to sit still for letters or parcels, not to drop them, to come and go at their master’s command. That’s the second part of the training.”
“Which you do.”
“Me and a couple of others here,” Harry said, his gaze rising idly to the grey sky. “I really like it. They’re smart and mostly friendly, and they seem to enjoy it — delivering the post, I mean. Sometimes I take my broom and fly with them while they’re training.” He smiled, then, remembering, “Better get back inside and check on my potion.”
“I confess to having never imagined to hear those words from your lips.” Snape fell in beside Harry, who laughed while thinking who is this bloke and what has he done with Snape?
Snape idly browsed the small selection of books on the shelves while Harry dipped into his workroom to lower the heat on his mini-cauldron. He was heading back out into the front office when the bell jangled. He spun toward the door to see Ron slope into the shop.
Harry whipped out his wand, under the counter, and hissed a whispered but heartfelt confundus. It hit Ron, stopping him in his tracks, and Snape slipped out after exchanging a quick, intense glance with Harry.
Ron blinked, shook his head and looked around.
“What brings you out this way?” Harry said, hoping his voice sounded normal. Ron’s puzzled face turned to him.
“That man …”
“The one who was just in here!” Ron looked around again, as if expecting him to pop into view.
Harry played it cool. “What about him?”
“Wow. He … he looked like Snape!”
Harry scrunched his face into idle puzzlement. “D’you think so? I didn’t see it.”
Ron shrugged. “Anyway. I popped in to tell you you’re coming to supper tonight with Hermione and Neville and Luna and me. There’s a new Muggle-Wizarding fusion place in Diagon Alley, round the corner from Ollivander’s.”
“Tell me?” Harry smiled.
“Hermione said if I ask you’ll just say no. I think she wants to fix you up with some bloke she met at St. Mungo’s — intern or something. She thinks you spend too much time alone.” Ron held up his hands in a comical gesture disowning any share of responsibility.
Slightly alarmed, Harry said, “This intern won’t be there tonight, will he?”
“Nah, mate, no way.” Ron blithely waved that away. “You know Hermione. She’s pushy but she’s not stupid. She knows to ask you first.” He made a face. “But I think she’s got pictures. His name’s Taylor or Tyler or some twee thing like that. Big muscles, she said, and thick as two short planks — just the way you like ’em.”
Harry gave him an unoffended two-finger salute. “No promises on the date thing, but I’ll come to dinner. What time?”
“Mr Potter, what are you doing?”
Harry almost lost his grip on the perch; quickly he stuck his pocket knife between his teeth, got a more solid hold on the perch with both hands and both legs, and swiveled his head to see Snape upside down in the doorway between his lab and the owlerie.
“Didn’t you get my owl?” Harry said around his mouthful. “I sent an owl this morning. I didn’t want to just barge in unannounced, but—”
“But you’ve managed to all the same,” Snape said, but without obvious rancor. “Why are you hanging like a monkey from my owl perch?”
Harry turned his attention back to the perch. “Well, it seems to start — that is, the explosive magic — seems to start in their feet.” He hooked his left arm around the perch, took his knife from his teeth, and proceeded to saw a bit of wood from the section in front of him. “So I thought maybe it’s something in their perch that’s reacting to … well, to something else.”
Snape said nothing until Harry’d snipped his chunk of wood, pocketed it and the knife, and let his legs down to dangle for a moment before dropping to the floor. Something under one foot shifted his balance and he tottered a bit. Snape caught him by the left arm, steadying him — then pulled that arm close to peer at it.
“What’s this — dragon burn?”
“Hang on.” Harry transferred splinter and knife to a pocket — awkward while Snape was clutching his left wrist — adjusted his glass and said, “Yeah, sort of. A hatchling of George Weasley’s got me while he was showing us around, cheeky little bugger.”
Snape dropped his arm. “Come this way.”
Harry followed. Snape took a bottle of something clear from a shelf, turned and said, “Come here.”
Harry shrugged. “It’s just a scar.” But he approached. Snape drew a glass dipstick from the bottle and painted a line of clear, viscous liquid across the scar.
Harry started at the abrupt tingling, itching sensation, then watched as the scar disappeared. “My scars are the only things that make me interesting.”
Harry looked at him, surprised.
“There’s nothing interesting about you.”
Unmoved, Snape said, “You are able to joke about it so blithely only because they do not make you ugly.”
Startled, Harry met Snape’s eyes for a second — bitter and black as old coffee — then looked at the white scars on Snape’s neck.
“I don’t know.” He reached out, touched one - felt Snape freeze. “They’re ugly, but they don’t make you ugly.” He let his fingers trail across the hard, smooth scar tissue and Snape swallowed.
“What are you doing?”
“Oh —” Harry yanked his hand back. “Sorry. Scars. Y’know. They’re sort of a theme in my life.”
Snape continued to look past him. “The external ones mean nothing.”
“I think that’s what I just said.”
That startled Snape into meeting his gaze, startled a tiny twitch-smile from his lips.
“Thank you for the … confundus, by the way.”
It took Harry a moment to call to mind what Snape was referring to. “Oh. No worries. I know you don’t really want people knowing you’re still in the land of the living.”
Snape seemed to consider, and reject, certain words, saying instead, “Not right now.”
“So … could you do anything about this one?” Harry held out I Must Not Tell Lies and watched Snape’s brows press downward in a fierce scowl. He was debating saying never mind when Snape reached out and cradled Harry’s hand in his.
Harry watched, unbreathing, as Snape gently held his hand and perused the scars; turning it this way, then that, delicately, pressing and stroking and tugging at the scars as if to test their elasticity.
“This was done with a spelled quill?” Snape said softly, and Harry nodded. How could he tell?
“Stop fidgeting,” Snape murmured before Harry realised he was. He stilled his tapping toes and twitching fingers, taking in and sighing out a short breath. He’d never have imagined Snape could hold anything living with such … gentleness. The curve of his long warm fingers around Harry’s hand felt … kind. Almost affectionate.
Harry snorted a soft laugh at his own fancy and Snape gave him a darting glance from under knitted brows. Harry flushed and smiled apologetically and Snape released his hand, brushing past him — again, a casual touch of shoulders, of body heat and scent, that rocked Harry’s balance — and collected a jar from the thinly populated shelves.
“This should help.” He handed Harry the jar; a twinge of disappointment clued Harry in that he’d expected Snape to apply it himself. “Not too much, once a day, well massaged into the skin.”
“Thanks.” Harry pocketed the jar. “Hey — what do I owe you for this?”
Snape looked at him, and Harry was instantly, warmly reminded of the way Snape had held his hand.
Then Snape shrugged. “Deduct it from my bill.”
Harry was in his workroom, sprawled on the long, shabby couch that sometimes doubled as a bed, when the bell tinkled. As it was well past shop hours, he ignored it, only looking up when the door to his workroom opened slowly.
“Don’t you ever lock up?” Snape asked.
Harry fought to subdue the smile that had attached itself without warning to his face.
“Not much point out here; no one ever steals post owls. Guess criminals don’t post letters too often.” He waved Snape in, telling the tiny thrill squirming in his stomach to just bloody shut it.
“I came to see if you’d learned anything more.” He approached as he always seemed to — slowly, almost warily. “Also I discovered that the owl you sent to warn me of your visit went astray; my neighbor from the farm down the road brought me your note yesterday evening.”
Harry grimaced. “It was a rookie owl — I didn’t have any fully trained ones available. Sorry.”
Snape shook his head, dismissing the concern. “I left it with my neighbor for fear of it becoming contaminated by whatever has affected the others.”
“I’ll fetch him later. I think that whole idea of mine was a dead end anyway. There’s nothing unusual about the wood. Or their feed, or their water, or their water dispensers, or their nesting materials, or their droppings, or their—”
“I get your gist.”
“So I was just about to take a break.” He offered a shabby, self-deprecating grin. “Accio firewhiskey.”
Snape caught the bottle in midair, then shot a glance at the well-stocked shelf from which it had departed. “Is this your usual evening’s entertainment?”
Harry looked up. “Some evenings.”
“There are easier ways to forget.” Snape uncapped the bottle and took a swig — a startlingly human sight. Harry stared at his pale, exposed throat, the twisted scars and working adam’s apple.
Snape lowered the bottle. “In fact, I can help with that. Perhaps an exchange of magics can be arranged.”
Harry smiled, shook his head. He’d considered obliviation, of course. “No thanks. I like to pretend it’ll get better eventually.”
Snape shrugged. “It might.” He handed the bottle over. “So what have you discovered?”
Harry looked down at his sloppy notes, spread like a poker hand on the battered couch cushion beside him. “Nothing yet. I mean, I know some of the things it’s not, but I haven’t a clue yet as to what it is. It does start in their feet, and it is a kind of magical fire that spreads through their bodies before ending up in their feathers. It doesn’t seem to do any harm along the way — just sort of severs their feathers from their follicles.”
Snape pulled his jacket around him — it nearly went round twice — and sat down, twisting around to try to read Harry’s notes.
Unthinking, Harry said, “You should eat more.”
Snape glanced sidelong at him. “That’s rather in your hands at the moment.”
Harry flinched. Idiot. How obvious did it have to be — the shack in the country, the herbs collected wild because Snape couldn’t afford to buy them, his barren shelves — that Snape was skint? “Then … d’you … I was about to have a sandwich. D’you want one?”
“That isn’t what I—” Snape began, but Harry waved that off.
“I know what you meant. But I was about to eat anyway, and you’re welcome to join me.”
“I have no need for —”
“It’s just a sandwich, professor,” Harry prodded.
“I’m not a professor any longer,” Snape said. “I was scarcely a professor even when I was a professor.”
Harry grinned, ducking his head, and got up, handing Snape the firewhiskey. “I think I’ve got some chicken.”
He went into the staff kitchen, slapped together a pair of fat sandwiches and brought them back into the workroom, unceremoniously handing one to Snape; he figured the less fuss he made the more likely Snape was to eat it.
Snape set the whiskey on the floor but didn’t start eating. “Do you live here?” he asked dubiously, as if referring to the manky couch.
“I’ve got a proper flat upstairs—” He tilted his head in the appropriate direction—“but there’s a washroom and kitchen behind the front room for the staff, you know, and I keep some things in there for when I’m working late.” He bit enthusiastically into his sandwich and felt himself relax when Snape, less sloppily, followed suit.
“The stupid Quibbler’s always on about that,” Harry remarked around his food. “Like it’s a crime to live by yourself above a shop. I try to ignore that sort of thing, y’know, but—” He held up his hands to indicate screaming headlines—“‘Potter abandoned by Friends and Family’ and ‘Boy Who Lived Now All Alone.’ It gets old pretty quickly. I’m happy as I am.”
Snape spared him half a sidelong glance, swallowed a mouthful of sandwich, and said, “Are you?”
“Well. You know. Pretty much. I have normal problems. Nothing that can be fixed by settling down, marrying, and having a bunch of kids. Witches seem to think that’s the answer to everything.”
“Most witches and wizards your age are thinking about such things.”
Harry shrugged, wolfed his last bite, and chewed vigorously. “Yah.” He swallowed and made a face when Snape rolled his eyes. “I thought I wanted that. Then I realised it was more that I thought it was the right thing to want. Turns out there’s one thing I know I don’t want, and that’s a wife.”
“Sowing your wild oats?” Snape’s sarcasm was listless.
“Well. No. Well, I mean, sort of, but not —” Harry clamped down on his babbling tongue, disciplining it into coherence. “It’s not the commitment part that I’d mind. It’s the girl part.” He blushed and stared at the whiskey bottle while Snape chewed thoughtfully, swallowed, and said:
Harry’s head swiveled. “You do?” Snape’s taut expression seemed to confirm exactly what Harry was thinking. He blushed again, hot all over, uncomfortably so thanks to the heat of the whiskey in his system. “I mean — but you loved my mum.”
Snape sneered that away. “I don’t think I’m capable of love in that sense.”
Harry shook his head. “No. I saw your memories, remember. You loved her.”
“As an ideal — I made her into a lot of things in my head. Salvation, a prize, a way to cleanse—” He shook off the words and Harry, avidly listening, cursed silently. “That was … romanticised, but it wasn’t a romance. Certainly not on Lily’s part, and not really on mine, though it was long before I understood that.”
I can’t believe he’s sitting here talking to me like this — friendly, calm, open …
Harry only realized he was shaking his head in slow wonder when Snape glanced his way and said, “What?”
“You — you’re different.”
Snape sighed. “I was — and am — as circumstances made me.”
“But you’re not … you don’t …” Harry picked at the label on the bottle until Snape took it out of his hands. He watched Snape take a swig and blurted, “You’re nice.”
Snape coughed, covering his mouth with his free hand, then glared at Harry, watery eyes indicating how close he’d come to choking.
Harry shrugged. “By comparison, I mean.” Harry moved his sheaf of notes to one side, acutely aware that there was now nothing between them but a foot or so of air and a half-empty bottle of firewhiskey.
Snape swallowed roughly and gave him back the bottle.
“I had a role to play,” he said. Harry, about to take a swig, rested the bottle on his knee and watched Snape’s profile as he spoke. “I didn’t want it. It was the least bad of a spate of horrible choices. I was—” He stopped, put his head back, and laughed. “Unhappy.”
Harry handed him the bottle again, and he took it unhesitatingly.
“I’m sorry about that,” he said. “I mean, whatever part I had in that.”
Snape took a swig, shook his head. “You didn’t know. You were an intolerably smug little prick, but you couldn’t know.” He leaned back on the couch, for all the world as if settling in for a cosy evening.
“Thanks.” Harry grabbed the bottle back and took a swig. His mouth was here, he thought as he wrapped his lips around the warm, wet glass, and that inner tingle sparked up again. He lowered the bottle and - Snape was looking at him, looking at him, and the tingle shot straight into regions that left no doubt what was going on. Harry gulped and tried not to squirm. He can’t mean that look. It’s all in your … head. He almost laughed at that, and offered the bottle back to Snape.
“Are you happy now?” he asked, his own voice surprisingly rough.
Snape took it, set it on his own knee and looked at it. “Content. Or at peace. At least in most ways.” He shrugged. “It’s a difficult thing to quantify.”
“That’s a fact,” Harry agreed. “Everyone else seems to have all these ideas about what will make other people happy and they don’t want to hear what the person himself thinks about it.”
To his astonishment — not that it did anything to quell the arousal coiled warm in his groin — Snape said, “You and I were cogs in a very large machine. We were used by those who had ends and didn’t care about the means. However much agency we thought we had …” He chuckled, took another rather spartan gulp of whiskey and gave Harry back the bottle. “… well, it was mostly illusory.”
Harry stared into the bottom of the bottle, absolutely boxed in between agreeing with Snape, marveling at Snape’s openness, flailing at his own purring arousal. He was afraid to say anything and terrified of staying silent.
So he shook the bottle, splashing around the dregs of the firewhiskey. “Shall I open a fresh bottle?”
Snape looked at him — his stomach jumped — and then pushed himself to his feet.
“It’s late. I should be going.”
Harry’s mouth opened to protest, but he couldn’t form any words that didn’t sound too bloody pathetic.
Snape nodded at him. “Thank you for the amateurish sandwich and the mediocre whiskey.” He headed for the door.
Harry chuckled and surrendered. “You’re welcome. Good night.”
He thought Snape shook his head briefly before replying, “Good night, Mr Potter.” Then he was gone.
Harry sat on the front stoop of his shop, gazing into a clear, star-spangled summer night sky and thinking about his Neutrino. He hadn’t been flying in a week, and the fates couldn’t have sent him a night more perfect for it.
He itched for something — an itch that started in his stomach but crawled its way outward, forced to a restless halt in his fingertips and toes. Whiskey? he needled himself, but maybe it was for any release. He’d been cooped up too long. But he needed to find an answer to this as soon as possible; it was no abstract puzzle for Snape — it was his ability to eat and keep a roof over his head. Harry felt as keenly aware of it as if it were his own livelihood at stake. Not that that had made the answer to this weird little problem any easier to come by.
He felt a tingle, as of slight electricity in the air — a sensation he’d learned presaged someone apparating — spent a second wondering at the startled-surprised jolt in his stomach when Snape appeared beside the old stand of oak across the road. That pleasant jolt was struck down by another one — he had no good news for the man who now strode scowling toward him.
“What are you doing up at this hour?”
“What are you doing visiting at this hour?”
Snape stopped on the walk, looked down at him. “I asked you first.”
Harry smiled. “Just needed some air. I’ve been bent over my worktable forever.”
“How long have you been at this?”
Harry shrugged. “Three days, give or take.”
“Three days?” Snape’s brows collided over his nose. “Without rest?”
“I’m resting now,” Harry countered reasonably, getting to his feet. “Come on in.”
He led Snape into his workroom and indicated the disastrous-looking mess that was his worktable. Feathers and bones and leather and potions and fewmets were all over the place, and after his break for fresh air Harry was painfully aware that the room smelled like a combination of zoo and chemist’s.
Snape made no comment, only browsing through Harry’s notes, stacked neatly this time on the corner of the table.
“Oh — thanks for the potion.” Harry held out his hand. “It’s almost gone.”
Snape looked clinically at his hand, not touching it, and Harry sighed inwardly.
“It’s something in the pouches,” he summarized, getting back to business. “I’m almost sure of it. Where do you get them from?”
“A leatherworker’s in Diagon Alley. Sue Corium is the proprietress. That is, she stitches the pouches. I doubt she tans her own leather. Why?”
Harry shook his head, thinking. “Don’t know yet. But I’m sure it’s something to do with the pouches. Are they spelled other than against breakage?”
“Not by me.”
“But it’s not just the pouches. I’ve tried about a thousand things to make them, you know, explode, and they just sit there.” He slid a finger and thumb behind his glasses and rubbed his gritty eyes. “And of course the owls don’t just explode on their own. It’s a combination of things, the pouches and the owls and something else—”
Snape took hold of his arm and gently pushed him toward the couch. “You need to sleep. Tired people make mistakes, overlook things.”
Harry started to protest, then sighed and sank into the couch, shoving aside the old cloak he kept there as an occasional blanket. “You’re right.” He set his glasses on the arm of the couch, knuckled both eyes with both hands, then sat back, stretching all over, letting his head fall onto the back of the couch. “It’s just that … I feel like it’s right there, you know, just out of reach, just one more minute of thought, of putting things together …”
Snape sat next to him and Harry stiffened, then made himself relax. He had no hope of Snape not noticing, of course, but he hoped Snape wouldn’t ask. He didn’t want to think about the reaction if he told the man that his proximity … well, made him stiff. In unfortunate — but enjoyable — ways.
“You’re smiling,” Snape said. Harry almost jumped.
“Thinking,” he said, stalling for time. He let his head roll toward Snape. “How weird this is, you and me sitting here.”
“We’re only sitting here because you don’t own any decent furniture.”
Harry chuckled obligingly. “You know what I mean.”
“It’s not something I imagined,” Snape admitted, “on the rare occasions I considered the future.”
“You didn’t expect to have one, did you?” Harry said quietly and Snape shook his head. “I know what that feels like — I mean, in a way.” Snape gave him a dubious look. “I mean, when I found out I had to, you know, die. I didn’t know there was any chance of coming back at the time.” He slid further down on the couch, almost horizontal, his feet stretched out. “Makes you think. About what you want, what you don’t want. It’s — it’s strange how often it isn’t what you thought you wanted.”
Snape huffed a laugh. “That may be the wisest thing you’ve ever said. Not that there’s much competition for the honor.”
“Har har.” Harry hastily covered a yawn, then asked, “Is this what you really want? To do potions for a living, I mean?”
Snape arched a brow at him. “Your worktable makes it fairly evident that you’ve learned a greater appreciation for the value of potion making than you ever showed in school.”
“So you do love it?”
Snape was silent; whether because he was seriously considering the question, or the confidence, Harry couldn’t tell.
“Yes,” he said finally, gazing into the distance.
Harry yawned hugely. “Sorry.”
Snape shook his head. “Sleep.” He stood up and Harry stretched out on the couch. Looking faintly pained, Snape said, “Your bed would probably be more comfortable.”
Harry yawned, “This is fine,” and curled onto his side. He blinked — or thought he’d just blinked — and awoke to Snape laying the old cloak over him.
Caught, Snape froze. Then he simply released the cloak - forbearing to actually tuck him in - and headed for the door.
Harry murmured, “Thanks,” and snuggled down. On that delicious cushioned precipice between waking and sleeping, he thought he heard quiet words before the closing of the door:
“Good night, Harry.”
He woke with the dawn and the realisation that Snape had never explained why he’d come by in the wee hours.
Exactly forty-eight hours later Harry popped breathless into existence on Snape’s front porch, banged on the cracked, desiccated door with his fist, and shouted: “I found it!”
He heard silence. Then a faint “Lumos” and the creaking of floorboards and door locks and hinges.
“It’s me,” he said for insurance as the door cracked, then swung wide to reveal Snape, half naked in pyjama bottoms only, holding aloft a glowing wand. Harry boggled for a moment — the only time he saw that much male skin lately was when he showered — and felt his already lively heartrate speed up.
“Wh — what are you doing here?” Snape’ voice was soft, sounding just-awakened.
Harry snapped out of his daze. “I — I’ve figured it out!”
“You’ve …” Snape blinked at him, his expression as soft as his voice, pleasant, inviting …
Harry shook himself again. “It’s cyanide. There’s a little — just a trace — in their systems. I had a sample of what you fed them and their nests and everything, and it wasn’t in any of those. Turns out it’s in the bags. It reacts with the spell you use to prevent breakage and with the Kn’owledge and just … combusts.”
Snape said nothing, but lowered his glowing wand a little.
“So all you need to do is get rid of those pouches and get some that don’t contain cyanide. Well,” he added belatedly, “you’ll also need a new owl, of course.”
He stood there, beaming stupidly at Snape, who stared back at him as if one indrawn breath from expressing, at length and with invective, profound astonishment at the unmitigated idiocy of everything he’d ever done in his entire life, starting with this particular escapade. He had a decent layer of admittedly stringy muscle over his bones, and a lovely trail of black hair down the middle of his chest and stomach, and with his hair loose about his face and his pyjama bottoms low on his hips, he looked … delectably approachable.
Harry felt his whole body blush.
“So, anyway … I just — I knew you’d want to know as soon as possible.” He stood breathless and completely at a loss, and Snape took a step toward him, his left hand raised a few inches.
“Thank you, Mr. Pot—” He visibly corrected himself. “Thank you, Harry.”
Harry beamed. “You’re welcome!” And, in a dramatic impulse he regretted mere minutes later, stepped back, added a hearty, “Well, good night!” and disapparated.
Snape walked into the shop shortly after opening the next day. Evie hardly glanced up from her desk; Harry, at the counter sorting through applications for a new trainer, watched with surprised pleasure that became somewhat more of the former and less of the latter at the scowling confusion on Snape’s face.
“Did you glamour her or something?” he whispered when Snape reached the counter.
Snape spared Evie a dismissive backward glance. “She’s rendered sufficiently harmless by her own youth and ignorance. She wouldn’t know me from Salazar Slytherin.”
“So — what?” Harry asked with the confidence of a man who knew he’d done everything he possibly could to make everything he could possibly make right as right as he could possibly make it.
“I … ah …” Snape cleared his throat delicately and Harry tensed; if he was hesitant, it had to be bad.
“I … contacted Sue Corium, my pouch supplier. You’ll be interested to know that she recently changed leather suppliers, from a wizard on Anglesey who used traditional tanning methods to a muggle in London who uses more modern procedures — including cyanide.”
“Ha!” Harry slapped the counter in triumph. “I knew it. That’s fantastic. Thanks for telling me. That clears things up perfectly.” He could see that it didn’t, at least not for Snape. “So … what else?”
“Also …” Snape cleared his throat again, keeping his eyes on the gouged mahogany counter. “You neglected to present me with my bill.”
- “Oh!” Harry blinked, looked around as if expecting the thing to appear on its own, then tucked the job applications away and fished about under the counter for a quill and ink and one of their invoices.
“Just a second, then. Sorry.” He spread the form on the counter.
Snape edged away to give him some privacy, pretending to look at the owl training manuals spread on the end of the counter. Harry dipped the quill and watched Snape from the corner of half a squinting eye while jotting out the bill. He knew better than to forgive the debt — with Snape’s pride that’d just make him angry. Snape made a slight face as he perused a pamphlet, his lips pursing into a soft, inviting moue. I’ll just charge him a little. Harry scribbled quickly, sensing he was asking for trouble, however much Snape had mellowed.
Snape’s tongue darted out, a quick moistening, and Harry blinked. The image of Snape in his pyjama bottoms, rumpled and pale, with that trail of soft-looking black hair leading downward …
Harry gulped. Just a token amount. Maybe, just one …
He blew on the ink and let the parchment roll up. “Okay.” He pushed it toward Snape. “There you go.”
Snape reached over and unrolled the bill crisply, precisely as if he had two sickles to rub together. Harry watched his eyes skim, stop, widen and narrow — then return to his face.
Harry smiled. It was, of course. “It’s my fee.”
“I won’t pay.”
“I’ll sue. You’ll go to debtor’s prison.”
“Don’t be absurd — this isn’t Oliver Twist. Besides, you wouldn’t dare sue over this outrageous— the newspapers would hear of it.”
“You presume a great deal.”
“Well, I don’t. I don’t think I’m asking all that much. Ordinarily I’d charge about a hundred galleons for this kind of work.”
“Then why this?” Snape shook the paper, and the fist clenched around it, in Harry’s face.
Harry opened his mouth — and froze. He had no explanation, or at least none he had the courage to offer. I like you and I know I’m barmy but you’re bloody sexy and I know you don’t have a lot of money so …
No. Pathetic. True, but pathetic.
With a snarl of disgust Snape whirled and banged through the door, Harry’s half-choked “Wait!” far too late to stop him.
Now what have I done? Harry sank onto the counter stool and sighed. “You’re a berk.”
The bell rang out front and Harry ignored it, even though he wasn’t working. Then Evie poked her frizzy head in.
“There’s a fella here t’see you,” she said. “’e looks mean.”
“Oh well.” The bottle was empty anyway. Harry pushed himself off the couch and followed her into the front room. Evie pointed — as if Harry couldn’t see him five feet away — and continued back to her desk across the room.
Snape stood at the long counter with his arms crossed. “I haven’t received the summons,” he said coolly.
“Summons?” Harry said blankly — then thought you’re doing your parrot impression again. He came around the counter so it wasn’t between them; this wasn’t business, not to him, whatever it seemed like to Snape.
“You threatened to sue me for nonpayment,” Snape said.
“Oh.” Harry rolled his eyes. “You didn’t really think I’d do that to you, did you?”
“I didn’t really think you’d do … what you did in the first place.”
Harry shrugged. “I thought it was worth a try. It’s only one weedy little—”
“That’s not the point!”
Harry tried for nonchalant. “It doesn’t matter. I mean, I don’t mind if you don’t pay. I don’t really do this for profit.”
“Profit?” Snape snapped. “Is that what you call this?” He held out the crumpled bill and Harry, defeated, took it back.
“Evie,” he said, “you can go.” At her startled glance and instant obedience, he realized even his dizzy receptionist knew a brewing storm when she saw one on the horizon.
“I didn’t mean to insult you,” he said when the door shut behind her, his voice small. He spread the bill out on the counter with nervous, clumsy fingers, feeling himself shrink.
Snape’s tone had no such deficiencies of spirit. “Then what did you mean?”
Harry gaped, grouper-like, at his own sloppy writing: Bill for services rendered to Mr Regulus Brewer: One kiss.
Oh fuck. He’d meant to write one galleon. Yes, he’d been staring at Snape’s mouth, but … surely he’d written one galleon? But his own handwriting called him a liar. And other things. Oh fuuuck ...
“But I didn’t—” Something — some bold, suicidal urge — made him gulp down the denial. He stared in panicked silence at Snape’s expectant face. Something, say something, anything — not anything, say something smart!
“It’s just that you’ve been so nice—”
“Well, not right this second!” Harry glared briefly and Snape shut it. “You’ve been really … well, different from before. And I was so glad you were alive. And then …” Fire streaked through his body, rumbling into life at his feet and blasting out the top of his head. Oh, bugger. In for a penny …
“And-and then you were half naked and I was …”
“When I came to tell you I’d figured it out—”
“It was three in the morning, Potter. Of course I wasn’t dressed—”
“It wasn’t a complaint,” Harry countered, and Snape’s mouth snapped shut. “It was … um … distracting.” Another flare of heat flooded his body, making his hands and feet ten time larger — at least they felt that huge and ungainly as he fidgeted stupidly, staring at the scuffed toes of Snape’s black leather boots. “So I forgot to tell you what you owed me. And then … when you came in, I was … um … thinking about that … and other things, you know, and I thought I wrote one galleon, but …” He squinted up at Snape, half expecting a hex or blow, and jumped when Snape’s hands closed hard on his arms.
“You … you are saying that you …” Red blotched Snape’s pale cheeks. His black eyes bored into Harry’s, seeking but not angry, and Harry’s insides jittered to realise that Snape knew — and, more spectacularly, wasn’t going to kill him.
Harry nodded. “Yeah.”
Snape eased closer, close enough to share breath and warmth and scent, close enough that Harry heard the rustle of his hair swinging forward and felt the strands tickle his neck as Snape bent to say in his ear:
“Do you want the galleon?”
Harry swallowed; he was already hard and panting — any actual skin-to-skin contact would make him explode like one of Snape’s owls. He shook his head against Snape’s, heard Snape’s sharp inhalation, and stated his case.
Snape’s hands slid up to his face, holding him there, warm and steady, and Harry’s eyes shut on their own as if seeing would be a distraction. He felt Snape’s breath against his face, tickling, and made a purring sound that he barely had time to be embarrassed about before a soft mouth covered his — who’d’ve thought his lips would feel so soft? — warm and gentle and almost like a hug. Until — oh god — Snape touched Harry’s lips with his tongue, a curling stroke like a beckoning finger, and Harry gasped and opened his mouth against Snape’s mouth, opened to his tongue and met it with his own, both of them careful but eager. Snape took his time, tasting Harry’s lips and face, teasing and fellating his tongue, catching his exquisitely sensitized lips with carefully ruthless teeth, until Harry’s brain was a blast of fireworks and his body was a capped volcano just a few seconds shy of—
Snape broke the kiss and stepped back.
Oh fuck. Harry dragged in a shuddering breath and blinked his vision into focus, grabbing the counter for balance. He had a momentary visual of Snape looking at him in … curiosity? Satisfaction? Amusement? Then Snape turned and headed for the door.
He was reaching for the knob by the time Harry dredged up the sense to whip out his wand and send a wordless locking spell. The door locked with an audible click and Snape’s hand, inches away, stilled, then dropped.
“Er — wait,” Harry said anticlimactically, and Snape glanced back at him. Little things — the lightly veiled mischief glinting in his eyes, the ghost of a smile touching the edges of his mouth, the faint playful arch of one black brow — told Harry this transaction wasn’t done with.
He smiled. “You forgot your change.”